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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    The much-touted paperless office is actually starting to become a reality

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #288  May 2, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Two things that the computer industry has given us are Too Many Acronyms (TMA) and UnFulfilled Promises (UFP). But it's time to take a look at one of the longer-running UFPs-- the paperless office --because it is starting to show signs of becoming a reality.

    Presumably, one of the side effects of going digital will be a shift from filing cabinets full of paper to hard drives full of data.

    To a certain extent, this has already come to pass, with e-mail replacing the huge number of paper memos circulated through offices of the past.

    Despite the increase in digital forms and documents, however, the quantity of paper consumed for business correspondence and record-keeping has not fallen-- in fact, it has continued to show a steady increase. If anything, computers and laser printers have made it easier to print out multiple drafts.

    The desktop-publishing revolution of the mid-to-late '80s didn't result in electronic documents; instead, novice publishers could use their newfound power to test out every possible change in appearance to a document. Where once a typewritten draft was sufficient, we now need fancy fonts, and inset graphs and graphics.

    Nevertheless, a much quieter revolution has been picking up speed over the past year or so, and while not promising to make hard copy obsolete, it may make hard copy much less necessary.

    Like many revolutions in their early stages, the electronic publishing revolution has lacked a single focus, but there are signs it is now coming together in a way that may greatly affect how we all share documents and information.

    One big problem with exchanging documents electronically has been that no matter how much effort
    you put into designing an attractive page, your work could only be viewed at its best if you printed it out.

    E-mail has been text-only, and if you sent an actual word-processor or desktop-publishing file, it could only be viewed as intended if the recipient had all the same fonts. Otherwise, most systems substituted plain old Courier, making your carefully designed document look like it came off a 1927 Underwood.

    A new generation of software is providing a way around that.

    Software like Adobe's Acrobat, WordPerfect/Novell's Envoy, Farallon's Replica, and No-Hands' Common Ground all work in a similar way: simply choose one as your "printer" (similar to faxing from your computer), and the software converts your document into a file that can be distributed widely and viewed with a free viewer. The fonts you used are included or cleverly replicated so that the document looks as you intended it to. Most of these programs and their documents are usable across both Windows and Macintosh platforms.

    On a different level, the formerly text-only Internet has been dramatically altered by the graphics viewers for the World Wide Web. Currently, Web viewers don't give all the design freedom of desktop publishing-- only a limited range of fonts are supported, for example. As well, in order to post a Web 'home page,' a document must be composed in HyperText Mark-up Language (HTML), with text commands embedded to describe the layout.

    This is getting easier-- both Microsoft and WordPerfect have released add-ons for their respective word processors to enable users to easily convert documents to HTML format.

    Adobe has announced that similar capabilities will be built into its PageMaker page-design software.

    The ability to export to World Wide Web HTML will almost certainly be almost universal by next year.

    As it is, you can already find a growing number of periodicals available electronically on the Web as well as in print. Computer publications are among them: PC Week, one which is not easily available in print in Canada, is posted every Tuesday morning at http://www.ziff.com.

    Other options are general interest periodicals like Time (http://www
    .timeinc.com/time/universe.html) and even daily newspapers like Halifax's Daily News (http://www.cfn.cs.dal.ca/
    Media/TodaysNews/Todays News.html).

    And in a move to merge these two separate takes on electronic publishing, Adobe has announced that it will be cooperating with Netscape to bring the capabilities of Acrobat into Netscape Navigator, probably the most highly regarded Web browser.

    Even plain-text e-mail isn't immune. One of the features of Microsoft's Windows 95 is the Exchange, which will allow users to send 'rich-text' documents as e-mail to other WIN95 users, complete with fonts and graphics-- again, full page design.

    The threads haven't quite come together yet, and paper documents will still be more portable than documents on screen.

    But these first glimpses of electronic publishing do suggest that we're likely to be reading, storing, and sharing more and more digitally.



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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan